Thursday

22nd Feb 2024

Transparency fight hones in on releasing EU text messages

  • Donald Tusk (l) with phone on which he reportedly received an SMS that rescued a bailout deal with Greece (Photo: The European Union)

The European Council says it keeps no records of phone text or instant messages sent by its president to other leaders.

"It is not the practice of the European Council to exchange information containing substantial content via instant messages of its president," said a council official, in an email.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Senior diplomats huddle over electronic messages dealing with Brexit (Photo: Dimiter Tzantchev)

The issue raises thorny questions over transparency and public access to records by an EU institution that represents member states.

Asked if it registered and documented exchanges for later use, the council did not respond.

The issue was first raised by transparency advocates last November, in a wider effort to have access to messages sent by the council's former president, Donald Tusk, to foreign heads of state or heads of government throughout 2018.

"What we want is basically for text messages to be treated as emails when it comes to EU transparency rules," said Luisa Izuzquiza, who had co-filed the access request on the behalf of the Berlin-based Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland.

They asked the release of Tusk's text messages and other mobile phone-based text communications.

This included everything from WhatsApp, Telegram, iMessage, Facebook Chat, Snapchat, Slack, Facebook and Twitter "direct messages", Signal Messenger, Wire, among others.

They noted several media reports where text messages were exchanged between leaders.

The Associated Press, for instance, once reported Tusk receiving text messages to help negotiate a bail out deal with the Greeks.

But when pressed to release Tusk's messages for the whole of 2018, the European Council declined, saying they held no such documents.

"If the content of these messages is not retained and held by the institution, it will never be possible for the public to access this content," pointed out Emily O'Reilly, the European Ombudsman, an EU administrative watchdog.

O'Reilly made the comments last week in a report over the affair.

She did not fault the Council for not having the documents, noting there is a "legal presumption that this statement is true and accurate."

But she did say EU institutions in general need to make every effort to reflect the reality of modern communications in their document management rules and practices.

This includes the increased use of text and instant messaging, she said.

The European Parliament did not respond when asked if it would take O'Reilly's recommendation onboard.

Meanwhile, the European Commission says its record-keeping policy is maintained in the virtual working environment brought about by the pandemic. It is an assessment disputed by some.

The commission also says an SMS or another type of instant messaging might equally qualify as a record in the same way as an email, an electronic pdf document or any other information that needs to be kept.

"Whether it is considered a record or not will depend on the same criteria as for any other information," said a European Commission spokesperson.

That criteria is open to both interpretation and criticism.

For the commission, it depends on whether the information is relevant to commission business, is qualified as important, and not "short lived".

Investigation

Violating promises and law, von der Leyen tests patience

Under EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, transparency was supposed to be a "guiding principle". Instead, the European Commission is asking Kafkaesque questions in response to an access to documents request, and failing to meet its legal deadline.

Exclusive

Commission took no minutes at Juncker speech seminar

In August, Jean-Claude Juncker and his EU commissioners held a two-day seminar at a chateau outside Brussels to prepare this week's State of the Union speech. The commission implies there is no written record.

Exclusive

'Big 3' EU candidates won't pledge lobbyist minutes

EUobserver asked candidates for the presidency of the EU Commission to commit in principle to having minutes taken of their meetings with politicians and lobbyists. The 'Big 3' all said no.

EU Ombudsman: Missing texts with Pfizer CEO are 'wake-up call'

The EU Ombudsman said missing texts between European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and the boss of Pfizer are a "wake-up call" for all institutions about how they should handle work-related instant messages in the digital era.

EU Commission promises only minor update on transparency

Efforts to update and revise 20-year old EU transparency rules on document-access have been delayed for years - in part, because of the Council, representing member states. The European Commission has opted for internal guidelines, which are currently being drafted.

Feature

Only Palestinians paying thousands of dollars leave Gaza

Despite the high risk of dying from war, starvation or disease, Gazans are still not allowed to enter Egypt. Except those who bribe the authorities. And the EU mission EUBAM Rafah cannot be deployed due to security reasons.

'Nightmare' 2024 sees Orbán struggle ahead of EU elections

Viktor Orbán admits that 2024 "could not have started any worse" for his government. The sex-abuse scandal that led to the resignation of the president provides an opportunity for Hungary's opposition — but their fragmentation could be a major obstacle.

Latest News

  1. EU auditors: rule-of-law budget protections only partial success
  2. EU's €723bn Covid recovery fund saw growth, but doubts remain
  3. Von der Leyen rejects extremist parties, leaves door open to ECR
  4. Russian oligarchs failed to get off EU blacklist
  5. Podcast: Navalny, Ian Bremmer and "more Europe"
  6. Only Palestinians paying thousands of dollars leave Gaza
  7. Ukraine refugees want to return home — but how?
  8. African leaders unveil continent-wide plan to buy medicines

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us